Ken Stabler dies at 69; elusive Raiders quarterback known as ‘The Snake’

Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler gets off a pass against the Los Angeles Rams in a 1977 game. Stabler died in his native Alabama at the age of 69.
(Bill Varie / Los Angeles Times)

Ken Stabler, among the greatest quarterbacks in Oakland Raiders history, has died of complications from colon cancer. He was 69.

Stabler, who had battled the disease since being diagnosed in February, died Wednesday, according to a statement by the family.

“He passed peacefully surrounded by the people he loved most, including his three daughters and longtime partner, as some of his favorite songs played in the background, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Leaves Falling Down,’ ” the statement said.

Although his family did not disclose where Stabler died, he was in his home state of Alabama, according to the Raiders.


Nicknamed “The Snake” for his elusiveness on the field, Stabler was involved in some of the greatest plays in Raiders history, ones so well known they merited their own monikers: “Ghost to the Post,” “Sea of Hands” and the “Holy Roller.”

Stabler was born on Christmas Day, 1945, in Foley, Ala. A second-round pick from Alabama, he played for the Raiders from 1970 to 1979, the Houston Oilers from 1980 to 1981, and the New Orleans Saints from 1982 to 1984. He was AFC player of the year in 1974 and 1976, leading the NFL in passing in the latter season. He also led the Raiders to the first of their three Super Bowl victories.

“I’ve always said if I had to win a game, I’d want him as a quarterback,” Hall of Fame coach John Madden told The Times, his voice cracking with emotion. “When this happens, you just think of all the great times, the wins, the Super Bowl. He was such a big part of that. More than that, he was always a happy guy, always full of life. He enjoyed life.”

According to his family, Stabler requested that his brain and spinal cord be donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center to support research into degenerative brain disease in athletes.


“He was a kind, generous and unselfish man, never turning down an autograph request or an opportunity to help someone in need,” his family said in the statement. “A great quarterback, he was an even greater father to his three girls and a grandfather to his two ‘grand snakes.’”

Although Stabler is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he unquestionably left his mark on the game. At one point, he held the NFL record for reaching 100 victories the fastest, doing so in 150 starts and breaking Johnny Unitas’ mark of 153. Since then, only Terry Bradshaw (147), Joe Montana (139) and Tom Brady (131) reached 100 wins in fewer starts.

In his 2010 book “Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders,” Peter Richmond wrote of Stabler: “He’d come a long way from rural Alabama, and while physically he’d eventually return to his beloved Gulf Coast, psychologically he would forever be a Raider — the laid-back leader, the lifelong keeper of an unquantifiable statistic: he invariably knew how to find a way to win.”

Stabler is survived by his daughters, Kendra, Alexa and Marissa; his sister, Carolyn Bishop; and grandsons Jack and Justin.